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Feelings - An Agency Ladder

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time

— Maya Angelou

Hang with me on this one, we get to the meat of things in the bottom half and start developing a (I’m confident, completely NON-novel) framework for thinking about feelings/emotions and their evaluation in general.

What is there to be said about love that centuries of writers, poets, and wise folk have not claimed already? Almost anything left to say is either cliche, dark, or unrelatably romantic. Aside from a mediocre Haddaway song, what is love anyways?

Last week I touched on the idea of cleaving feelings into 4 categories:

  1. Feelings within ourselves that we can control directly
  2. Feelings within ourselves that we can control in-directly
  3. Feelings within ourselves that we cannot control
  4. Feelings outside ourselves completely

What we’ve built here is effectively an “agency ladder”. The top rung, category one, maximizes our agency over the feeling.

We can “control” it, so to speak. As we progress down the ladder, we lose more and more agency over the feeling itself. They become like wanton children, pulling us in ways we can hardly avoid let alone predict.

Which brings up the question, where does love fall on this ladder? Can we “control” love at all? Some would say yes — of course! Others would be mortified by such a response.

Like passion, love is polarizing in more ways than one.

But if all the anecdotes and parables, TV shows and movies, plays and musicals have even a morsel of truth embedded, it would seem love most certainly cannot be controlled. “I can’t help how I feel”, “I can’t explain it, but love it/you/them”, “I don’t want to but I love it/you/them” — how many times have we heard something along those lines?

From an inferential perspective, however, the notion of love being beyond control seems to stand on somewhat shaky grounds.

I believe the opposite of love is apathy, not hate. If we take love as popularly defined — an intense caring, longing and wanting/needing, then the opposite is simply the absence of those emotions. Which is much less about malice and much more about the simple act of not-caring.

Caring and not-caring, however, fall squarely within category one (I.e. feelings within ourselves that we can control directly.)

No one is born inherently giving a shit about football teams, architecture or nature conservancy. Yet we can effect our feelings towards these topics via exposure, practice, and the stories we tell ourselves (i.e. “I’m Abhi and I am an architect”).

Not caring in particular is especially easy to impact directly.

Ignorance is bliss and turning a blind eye is one of the easiest things to do. It takes effort, some amount of activation energy, to give a shit. It takes almost none to avoid, disengage or ignore. If not-caring about something is so easy, then it makes it hard to believe we can’t do the same for it’s relative opposite, love.

Of course, I fully realize the sweeping generalizations being made here.

Not everyone has the same ability to effect “not-caring”. Not everyone can live with themselves if they turn a blind eye to something egregious. Morals, conscience, the “voice in your head” — we have many ways of describing the feelings and emotions that force us to take notice. To engage.

The fundamental problem we have here is what I like to call (with no knowledge of whether this is actually a thing or what scientific term already exists for it) the “Spectrum Problem”.

The Spectrum Problem is the main culprit in making intractable what ought to be simple conversations around relatively baseline moral grounding.

All these words, these big picture, capital letter words like love, caring, apathy, hate — they all seem to exist on a spectrum. Not only do they exist on a spectrum for society, they seem to exist on a spectrum for each individual.

And not just for each individual, but for each emotion of the individual. Even then the spectrum is not rigid — it does not solidify and allow us to make point measurements. The spectrum, even for a single feeling within one individual, seems to exist as a blurry “Schrodinger” emotion.

What I mean is, most of us aren’t even consciously aware of where on the spectrum our feelings lie until we are forced to reckon with them, whether through internal or external intervention.

It’s not till that moment, the boom-pop-snap of involuntary resolution, that we are suddenly able to take a (still fuzzy, but somewhat more concrete) spot measurement of our feelings. The weaker or closer to middle ground my current measurement, the more work I need to do to bring it to fidelity.

If I’m crazy passionate about bears (let’s say falling on the far right of the passion spectrum), I don’t need to think a whole lot when someone asks me my views on whether grizzlies should be endangered. On the flip side, if someone asks my personal opinion on curb height (a fascinating and multi pronged topic I highly recommend exploring), then I’d have to spend considerable more time and effort figuring out where I stand on the issue.

Curb height, bears, love, passion — all suffer from the same Spectrum Problem.

Fascinatingly, the spectrum also seems to dictate the type of feeling we experience. The closer to the middle spectrum we fall on a topic or emotion, the easier it is for us to directly impact our experience of it. If I don’t know a lot about curb height, some cursory research and understanding may be enough to shift my opinion on the spectrum.

If on the flip side, I consider myself a true expert on curb height and have developed strong feelings for them over the years (fossilization), then it becomes considerably harder to directly impact my feelings about them from within.

Which creates a few interesting principles that form the grounding of this argument:

  1. All feelings/emotions exist on a spectrum (Spectrum Problem)
  2. The fidelity of our emotions is more clear on the edges of the spectrum and more fuzzy towards the center (Fidelity Problem)
  3. The higher the fidelity of our emotions, the harder it is for us to directly impact them. The feeling shifts from category one, to category two/three and beyond (lower on the agency ladder)
  4. High fidelity emotions coupled with long time horizons leads to fossilization of feelings moving us further still down the agency ladder (Fossilization Problem)
  5. The lower an experienced emotion on the agency ladder, the more unpredictable, uncontrollable and random our response (Response Problem)

I’ll dive into more thoughts on each of these at a later date, for now I need to directly control my emotions towards working out.

Till next time,
Abhi